Saturday, 27 June 2009

Bullet points kill learning for change

Glowing, PowerPoint-projected in light-dimmed rooms, bullet-point-prompts cue presenters to elaborate with yet more bullet points. Bullet points dominate executive presentations and university lectures. Executives, managers, the managed and students insist on them, make decisions based on them, and demonstrate knowledge by repeating them.

Bullet points have come to represent knowledge laid bare: high impact: stripped of the flannel and waffle; complexity distilled; quick, no-nonsense, unequivocal, definitive; knowledge in a second; the preferred “learning style” of many managers and their managed.

But a bullet point is a summary: a skeletally brief abstract; often cliché or jargon; (wrongly) assumed to effectively represent (communicate) complex intellectual and emotional meaning forged in the messy dynamics of interactive conversation, discussion and debate.

There’s slim chance of those few words effectively communicating rich new meaning to anyone who wasn’t part of the formative interactive process; slim chance that those bullets will effectively communicate any more than trivial, mechanical or mundane meaning, even to the in-crowd.

There’s even less chance of achieving richly shared meaning if the meaning is new: outside or on the edges of the experience of the listener. Bullet points reinforce groupthink.

To a story teller, a bullet point is a symbol of the meaning of the process that conceived it: the candid discussion, debate, conversation and winnowing that produced a consensus. A consensus based on the shared understanding of what was left out and what was given prominence; of what’s behind the brief words: the story they represent.

That story must be told. Told well, with passion; capturing of the tension and relief, sadness and elation, conflict and reconciliation of its conception.

Without that story, the bullet point could mean almost anything. Like: “They don’t listen.” “My opinions don’t count.” “That’s simple.” “That’s right.” “I won.” “I lost.” “Yeah, right!” “I know.” “This is great.” “This is crap.” “This is so profound” “This is inane.” “Blah, blah.” “More slogans” “In a nutshell.”

Effective communication creates shared meaning. Bullet points are at least very unreliable at that especially if the meaning is new as it inevitably is in learning for organisational change.

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